Spectrums of Intervention

I have mostly resolved to leave R2P-blogging to Gulliver, Dan Trombly, Mark Safranksi, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. However, Safranski linked to an op-ed by Simon Adams on the Responsibility to Protect that I find illustrative of some of the issues with talking about R2P: the prevention/intervention distinction, non-military coercive prevention measures, and strategy in intervention.
Adams writes to refute what he sees as R2P myths, most significantly that R2P is a “right to intervene,” and explains the preventive roots of the doctrine:

R2P’s core idea is that all governments have an obligation to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It is primarily a preventive doctrine.

However, in the same paragraph he also writes something that contradicts his earlier argument:

However, R2P also acknowledges that we live in an imperfect world and if a state is “manifestly failing” to meet its responsibilities, the international community is obligated to act.

Should the government fail to meet its responsibilities, the international community not only has both an implicit and explicit right to intervene but an moral obligation to do so. Dubbing this prevention as opposed to intervention is a semantic, rather than operational, distinction–illustrated by this vaguely threatening quote at the end of the article:

R2P is not regime change with mood lighting. Each crisis is unique. But a warning to President Bashar Assad of Syria: We are watching and learning.

The context of this warning is unmistakable, which leads into the next point: prevention and intervention are not diametrically opposed concepts, but part of a general spectrum of external intervention that range from coercive measures (sanctions, no-fly zones) to military operations. Since Simon notes at the outset that intervention is a possibility should the other measures fail, Beijing and Moscow’s view of R2P as a stalking horse for military operations is not entirely paranoid. However, what these regimes are mistaken about is their notion that intervention’s maximal form is intentional.  Rather, it is a dynamic process driven by face-saving measures and domestic opinion, with the end result much different than those seeking prevention usually intend.

First, noted above, nonviolent coercive measures (prevention) are established as the weak form of intervention. This sets in place a process that sometimes functions as the IR equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: a pistol introduced in the first act of the play must fire in the second. Why does this process occur?

Eric Martin provided one of the best overviews in his post “The Regime Change Ratchet.” The “ratchet” is essentially a product of pressure building on a political decisionmaker to quickly escalate as each form of weak intervention fails to convince dictator to modify his behavior. Prevention is thus compellence rather than deterrence, and subject to all of the problems that thwarted implementation of a Schelling-esque strategy in Vietnam.

In Step 1, the political leader is urged to condemn Regime X’s actions, as a cheap measure that would show resolve and support. Naturally, Regime X’s dictator pays these words little heed. In Step 2, the political leader is urged to back up his words with sanctions, diplomatic-capacity building, or a no-fly zone. This too, fails to compel the dictator to change his behavior. In Step 3, the political leader, looking weak in the face of continued regime defiance, is urged to implement a limited military action to stop Regime X. Because the continued existence of Regime X is in itself seen as the problem, regime change is a strong possibility. What happens after regime change is sometimes prolonged occupation or third-party state building.

In each step of the ratchet, actions proposed as cheap and risk-free end up pulling–through dynamics of public pressure and commitment–the political leader deeper and deeper into a military operation her or she did not originally intend to carry out. The process is similar to the famous microeconomic concept of the “dollar auction“–in which players bidding cents to get a dollar end up overbidding because they refuse to see the total sum of their sequential investments (which are deceptively cheap) as a sunk cost. The danger of the R2P spectrum, thus, is that even small investments in prevention can morph into commitment.

Why does prevention often fail? Clausewitz’s injunction about the necessity of defeating the enemy’s main army often applies here. CvC was perfectly fine with using influence to defeat an enemy without fighting–however, his reading of military history suggested that this was very rare and required an exceptional ability to know and manipulate opponents (and an unhealthy amount of luck). Strategic bombing and the idea of systems targeting is an attempt to bypass the enemy’s main army and target a state’s parts in detail, hoping to cause a cascading collapse. I have already dealt with indirect approaches and strategic paralysis here.

Diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and no-fly zones function in the R2P context as indirect approaches. Sometimes they work. But if strong words and material deprivation were enough to convince a dictator to abandon the logic of political survival, there would be no need for R2P as currently formulated. A “no-fly zone” often morphs into a “no-drive” zone because airpower is at best tangential to many Third World internal conflicts.

Hence strategy is important in thinking about intervention–which Adams explicitly rejects:

If Benghazi had fallen to Kadafi, there is every indication that widespread, indiscriminate and deadly violence against civilians would have resulted. Former British statesman Paddy Ashdown’s recent comment that we should measure our success by “the horrors we prevent, rather than the elegance of the outcome,” is relevant in this regard.

Ashdown’s comment is a rejection of one of the foundations of modern strategic studies–the concept of ends, ways, and means. Even if one rejects the tenets of neo-Clausewitizian thought, most discussions of the use of force presume that you use it to further a policy end. Good intentions and a desire to prevent horror, while required under the tenets of Just War theory, are rarely enough.

Sometimes a “lesser of two evils” approach can be valid. Israeli counterterrorism policy comes to mind here. But this is because governments have a non-negotiable responsibility to protect their own citizens–even if situational ethics and ad hoc measures are at times necessary to do so. While protection of foreigners is indeed important, it is not a core security mission of the state. Hence a “lesser of two evils” approach, questionable even in the context of national security, should not be transferred to a mission that is clearly one of choice. Perhaps this accounted for the curiously tactical quality of the debate over Libya, in which various tactical measures such as no-fly zones, special forces trainers, or arms supplies were discussed without reference to a larger strategic endstate.

This is not to dismiss the entire idea of civilian protection, which is very much possible in the seams between power politics that exist. But we should understand exactly what these ideas and choices mean.


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